A Tedx Talk About An Extraordinary Journey

This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. An extraordinary journey undertaken by a mother and her two sons which transformed each of them. Pilgrimage in action.

I tuned into Twitter at about 1 o’clock in the morning to find a Tweet from a professor at the University of Nevada who said he was showing my TEDx Talk to his students studying leadership that day, and that’s how I found out it was online.

I thought it was the most wonderful way to discover it was out there, and now I can tell you more about the event; I was utterly privileged to take part on a TEDx run by a school, that was only the second one to gain a TED license worldwide.

Sir William Perkins School run the event with the full inclusion of their students; the girls work on the event, presentation and technical side, recording all the video and audio and then editing every talk. I am so proud school children put my TEDx Talk video together, I hope you agree they are amazing.

For me to give my first TED Talk about the walk I led as a parent, with my sons, to an audience of parents and children was just fitting. To know the students were gaining so much experience directly involved in the production was so pertinent.

I am also incredibly proud it was first seen in a classroom all the way across the world from me, in Reno, Nevada. A class led by Bret Simmons, Nevada Management Professor, to his MBA class as an example of the book they’re working on, “Building the Bridge As You Walk On It: A Guide for Leading Change”, by Robert E. Quinn, the Margaret Elliot Tracey Collegiate Professorship at the University of Michigan.

This talk was given at a TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. An extraordinary journey undertaken by a mother and her two sons which transformed each of them. Pilgrimage in action.

Imagine What Could Change If We Give Our Children The Space To Decide What Kind Of Adults They Want To Be

This was the last time I saw my boys.
The next time I saw them, they were men.

This scene of two boys walking off down an ordinary backstreet in the middle of nowhere in particular seems unremarkable, but it holds the story of a life-changing moment.

Six kilometres out from Carrión de los Condes, down a side street in Villalcázar de Sigra, we stopped in a little bar for a much-needed drink. I felt like I had been walking since the 13th century; we had been getting up at 4.30am every day for me to sew the blisters on my feet, leaving the thread in to drain the fluid during the day, and setting off before the dawn to cover 30km before the midday heat.

I was grateful for a break. When I stood up to get back on the road again, there was a searing pain in my knee so sharp I sat right back down again.

Next to our table was an advertising board with a taxi number on it. Harry looked at me sideways and said, “Maybe it’s a sign.”

Amused that he used this to his advantage, I gave in and agreed we’d take a taxi. Both my sons turned to me and said: “No, you’re taking a taxi, we’re walking.”

This was the last time I saw my boys.

The next time I saw them, they were men.

Eighteen months ago, on that ordinary Tuesday night when we sat down with a plate of sausage and mash with gravy in front of a DVD and 123 minutes later the boys stood up and said they wanted to walk 800km to Santiago de Compostela, this is what I wanted to make happen for them.

That night we had put on The Way, a film by Martin Sheen that is essentially about a handful of middle-aged people walking and talking.

It is a fictionalized account of a man who walks this 9th century pilgrimage, known as The Camino, after his son dies in the attempt; and the stories of those he meets on the journey. As the end credits rolled both boys just knew they wanted to walk it, and we had to do it together. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that before, where you’ve just had to do something. No reasons why and no rational explanation, you just want to do it.

Watching them walk away, I realised that this was why I had walked all this way.

Nothing quite prepares you for watching your sons grow up in front of your eyes; knowing you will never quite be the same person again.

I could never have imagined I would watch them do it. When I woke up that morning there was no indication that this would be the day. As I bought three bottles of soft drink from the bar, it never crossed my mind that it was going to happen right then.

It’s extraordinary how some significant moments are so quiet you would hardly know they were there.

As a parent, we want to conjure a wind underneath our children’s wings, not so they can fly but for them to soar high with passion and joy. I have no end of failings as a mother but in walking away they showed me I had done all right, and I understood that this was the reason I had come on this walk. I was truly at my happiest.

When they left me in that bar to set off for a town, they had no more information than the name of a refuge I would try and get us into. The town wasn’t an easy one, it was moderately large and our accommodation was off the main street, tucked down a side road. I resisted the temptation to tell everyone to keep a look out for them and decided to let them figure it out…
And they did.

singing nuns of Carrion de los Condas, Walking With Angels, by Melanie Gow

That evening we met up again in the simple reception of the convent refuge, with the singing Augustinian nuns, the gorgeous singing nuns from Columbia. Strangely moving and yet absurd. When they sang Amazing Grace, even the strongest cynic would have folded.

After this the guys went to sit outside a bar in the sun and called my sons over to join them. They had their first boys’ night out with the best men, from a dozen different backgrounds, men with values and a sense of wonder and fun, who treated my sons as equals.

You don’t get your first boys’ night out again, so I left them to enjoy the banter and the sangria they were being bought and wandered off to the church, as I had heard it was worth visiting.

It turned out there was a service for the feast day of The Assumption, a significant day in the Catholic calendar celebrating the belief that Mary was taken into heaven without having to live out her natural life, because she was the mother of Christ.

The priest gave a sermon that I could understand every word of for some reason, about the importance of mothers and the grace of the relationship between mother and child.

This sermon on this day was a powerful coincidence.

By the time the softly-spoken, Columbian nun accompanied herself on an acoustic guitar, singing, “Everything Changes Except Love”, I was in tears.

When that sweetly-smiling nun went on to give a speech about Hope and started handing out little paper stars the sisters had cut out and coloured in while praying for us, I gave in and cried – for the next three days. With pride for my sons, gratitude, joy, relief, a feeling of coming home to myself.

Imagine what could change if we give our children the space to decide what kind of adults they want to be; because nothing will ever be the same again.

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The Confession

The Confession: any time I spend with this picture reminds me of the man who dared to be vulnerable.

The Confession, I asked the man from Barcelona if he'd had his moment? He said no. "I am dry", he said.

I met a man; a young and handsome man from Barcelona. It was the day after the singing nuns, and my public display of weeping, and he was amused by me.

He was cool and sophisticated, shaped by the cynicism of the world. Hardened by real life, doubtful of possibility, distrustful of sincerity.

He asked me to explain why I had cried.

Endearingly, when I finished telling him he simply replied that he hoped to have such a moment.

I met him again at the Cruz de Ferro (the Iron Cross), one of The Camino’s most emblematic points. It is where you place your stone traditionally and leave all it represents behind. Many leave something meaningful at its base with their deepest wishes. People watch the sun rise, go through the rituals, and turn and hug those they know, hoping their wishes come true for them.

He was supposed to leave at León after five days, but he stayed on the road and I met him again here in the church at the top of the highest peak before the descent into Santiago.

We happened to be standing by the confessional box under a small window set in the deep, protective walls, when I asked him if he’d had his moment?

He said, “No. I am dry.”

His yearning created a special place in my heart. I didn’t know how to respond and simply said, “Interesting”.

He said, “I don’t think it’s interesting, I think it’s sad.”

His yearning created a special place in my heart. We caught sight of each other along the road occasionally, and I saw his face grow softer and his eyes sparkle more each day.

He arrived in Santiago the same morning we did. I came down the stairs of the pilgrim’s office and saw him below me in the line for his certificate of completion, the Compostela. I stepped up to him.

It was all there between us in that moment, unsaid.

He burst into tears.

We hugged for the longest time!

For me this very small story describes the big picture… perhaps.

What Are The People In The Next Town Like?

A stranger walking into a new town stopped a farmer working in the fields on the outskirts and asked: “Tell me, what are the people of the next town like?”

I have been asked a question this week, it’s one I get asked often:

“I have heard quite a lot of bad things about the walk! That a lot of it is along main roads, and it’s very crowded etc? So I just wanted to get a first hand view, is that true?”

I have thought of many answers to your question, ranging from practical advice to detailed descriptions, but really there is only one answer.

It’s a simple one; I am reminded of a parable I heard a while ago, of a stranger walking into a new town who stopped a local farmer working in the fields on the outskirts and asked: “Tell me, what are the people of the next town like?”

The farmer asked in return, “What are the people like in your home town?” The stranger replied they were lovely, as good and kind a people as any man could wish for. The farmer told the stranger he would find the people of his town were like that too.

A few hours later another stranger passed on the road into the town for the first time and stopped the farmer in his toil to ask the same question, “What are the people of the next town like?”

Again, the farmer asked him how he found the people in his home town, and the second stranger said, “Oh they are mean spirited and unfriendly, as big a bunch of crooks and moaners as you can imagine.”

The farmer replied: “You will find the people of this town to be much the same.”

What I am trying to say is that you take yourself on the walk, it’s about you and how you handle any challenges. The Camino does go along main roads, and train tracks and under pylons, and past cement factories and industrial outskirts; a lot of it isn’t pretty, or even inspiring.

One day we were on a particularly stony and endless path on the way to Nájera, it runs along a busy road for much of the day and that can wear you down. We decided to reach out to the passing cars and trucks, and began the game of waving at them. The amount of bright smiles, and surprised and enthusiastic waves, we got back made the road lighter on our feet, and the hooting horns made us giddy with a silly joy. 

A lot of the way is short on comfort and it can get very crowded. Isn’t life like that? Life asks us to walk tough roads at times, it’s very crowded, it is not comfortable all the time. It isn’t how the road is that matters, it’s how we respond that counts.

It is precisely the ability to keep going when its tough and uncomfortable that makes the difference.

A pilgrimage is not about rest and recuperation it is about throwing a challenge down to your life and yourself; it will show you what kind of person are, or give you the space to be the person you want to be.

Maybe this encourages you to make an opportunity like this for yourself.

14 Signed Limited Edition Photographic Art Prints

14 moments that tell the inspirational story of one woman’s walk with her sons, aged 16 and 12, for 33 exceptional days over the Pyrenees and across Spain for 800km to Santiago de Compostela.

14 signed Limited Edition Photographic Art Prints with a signed Certificate of Authentication, telling the inspirational story of one woman's walk with her sons, aged 16 and 12, for 33 exceptional days over the Pyrenees and across Spain for 800km to Santiago de Compostela
14 signed Limited Edition Photographic Art Prints, by Melanie Gow, for sale with a signed Certificate of Authentication

There are 14 signed Limited Edition Photographic Art Prints featuring Lessons Learned While Out Walking, with a signed Certificate of Authentication for sale; 14 moments that tell the inspirational story of one woman’s walk with her sons, aged 16 and 12, for 33 exceptional days over the Pyrenees and across Spain for 800km to Santiago de Compostela.

“I thought I had been around the block enough times to have this whole thing figured out. I wanted to go on this walk to give my sons the space to choose what type of men they wanted to be. It was my gift to them. It turned out it was quite simply the very best thing I could do for them, and it was also the very best thing I could do with them.

But the real surprise was that somewhere over this very long stroll I experienced a profoundly transformative overhaul.”

These Photographic Art Exhibition has shown in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland, The Gallery at Norden Farm, Maidenhead, UK,  The Gallery at Ice, Windsor, UK, in the historic Town Hall at The Oxford International Art Fair, Oxford, UK, Reading Contemporary Art Fair, Reading UK.

The artist Melanie Gow has given talks, including a TEDx Talk on the 14th of June 2014, on this 33 day journey with her sons at various venues, and appeared on BBC Radio Berkshire and in the print media talking about her work.

These Limited Edition Photographic Art Prints are available for sale and can be shipped anywhere in the world: click here 

Each Limited Edition Photographic Art Print comes with a Certificate of Authentication that verifies the authenticity of the accompanying limited edition print. The Title, edition number and back story of the Limited Edition Photographic Art Print are included on the CoA, and the artist’s signature on this document attests that she has personally inspected, numbered, approved and signed the print. This document further verifies that no unsigned or unnumbered copies within this edition are known to exist.

All works are hand-printed on the highest quality, Epsom Photo Lustre archival paper at 360gsm, using only the finest grade real pigmented inks. To protect your investment keep this art work in favourable conditions, away from fluorescent lighting and direct sunlight, and from areas with high humidity, and at normal room temperature 18-23C. Your print is expected to retain the original condition, without fading or discolouration, for at least 100 years.

You Are Here. Now.

When I look at this picture I feel a sense of being here, now. The past is behind, you can not see the future, you are simply right here, now.

You Are Here, Now. 1/14 in the Walking With Angels Collection, by Melanie Gow.

There is no way to tell what it took to get here, and from here you could not see what was around the corner. I was simply here, now. The misshapen memories of injuries of a thousand yesterdays and the lure of any tomorrows were made powerless in the deep breath of the present.

No four kilometres is like any other four kilometres, and you don’t always know where you are going. You have to make decisions in the moment all day, every day, and keep moving even though your muscles ache and your back bows in submission to the endurance. Imagine what weft of extremes a day can weave through.

An Urban Dome Walking With Angels, by Melanie Gow

One morning we got up at 5am to leave Burgos, a grand, robust city that gave birth to the conquering military prowess of a man like El Cid, and The Burgos Laws, which first governed the Spanish treatment of Native Americans in 1512.

For five perfect minutes we sat on a cold, dewy bench under a street lamp, eating the best ham and cheese pasty we have ever tasted, piping hot, straight from the baker’s tray. Then we spent nearly three hours walking to get beyond the grip of the city, around the banks of overpasses, through tunnels of graffiti, under power lines, and along train tracks.

There is no way to understand how hard it is to walk out of a city until you have to do it. The energies of the infrastructure that fuels a city generates a foul gloom. We were in very bad moods, bickering, and struggling in a fetid air that surrounded us like a ground mist. We had to put cloth across our faces to breathe through the smell; because you cannot escape anything quickly when you are walking. I had a headache.

Then suddenly we moved past the adversity of tall towers carrying electricity overhead and the electrified tracks and cables encircling the city boundary, and crossed a low bridge over a shallow stream. A small patch of sunflowers greeted us, the track turned a soft white and our mood lifted. It was as though we had passed beyond an invisible urban dome.

This is where the magic really started to happen.

We were facing six days on the Meseta Central – a plateau in the heart of peninsular Spain. It’s a 240 kilometre walk across flat, dry, wheat fields interrupted by the occasional town. No shade, no breeze, just hot, arid and relentless horizons.

People talked about this stage for days before, many skip this part, most of the people we met so far were taking the train round it.

Its tough reputation is legendary, so hard I thought maybe I was being careless taking the boys into it. The night before, I was still debating whether we should do it, particularly when we found out there was no public transport out of the area for the next three days.

The boys said they were prepared for it, so we decided we would go…

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The air is thick with heat and wheat dust, kicked up by the reaping, threshing, winnowing combine harvester rotors.

There was an endlessness about the horizon and an immediacy about the details at your feet; the walk seemed both relentless and ever-changing at once.

It is a remarkable feeling to face nothing.

The silence is a pressure at first.

But slowly the land and the heat won out against the noise, and we fell into a companionable silence. In that expanse of nothing every pulse of internal driving force was uninterrupted, a place of profound peace that allows you to narrow your life down to that heartbeat.

You begin to recognise habitual patterns of thinking, and this allows you to respond in new ways; in this relaxed state the mind is clear and you connect with a deeper sense of purpose and appreciation of all the small things which give life real meaning.

You walk in the heat for a long time, your mind is taken down the empty road ahead, your thoughts have the silence in which to be heard in, and they crowd your head. You can talk to distract yourself, but ultimately you walk alone with only your thoughts.

For hours … and then slowly you can even let your thoughts go silent … and a lasting peace is found inside.

 White Stone Climbing, Walking With Angels, by Melanie Gow

You can feel your core growing stronger, and that makes you feel like you are carrying less emotional weight. After all the silly games are played and you walk into the end of the day, the dogs stop barking and chasing their tails and lie down, and the evening stretches and reaches down deep inside you to open a space in which you can hear the Earth whisper.

 

Whenever I remember that day I immediately feel that sense of being in the now; of the past being behind, you can not see the future, at this moment you are simply right here, now.